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Antoun Issa

"The role of a writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say."
- Anaïs Nin
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Posts Tagged ‘Syria’

Assad must turn words into action

Posted By antounissa on June 23rd, 2011

My latest piece on the unfolding crisis in Syria, published on ABC’s The Drum.

In his first speech in two months, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad once again vowed political reforms while emphasising the need to combat outlaws and extremists.

Assad’s third speech since the Syrian revolt began was perhaps the first real sign that the president sought to empathise with, what he deemed, “legitimate” concerns of protesters. In contrast to previous speeches that were laden with foreign conspiracy theories, Assad toned down the accusations of a US-Israeli plot to destabilise the country, and appeared to address his people directly.

Assad proposed the creation of committees that would investigate the implementation of a new multi-party law and begin a national dialogue with opposition groups. The president also lambasted the country’s high levels of corruption, opened the door to a possible new constitution, and warned of an economic collapse in the wake of the unrest.

A failure to offer specifics of such reforms, however, has left many Syrians righteously sceptical. Within hours of Assad’s speech, protests erupted in the cities of Latakia, Hama, and several suburbs of Damascus.

A multi-party system was first proposed by the regime as a possible reform at the beginning of the protests in March. A month later, Syria lifted a 48-year-old emergency law, only to intensify an army crackdown that the opposition claims has killed over 1,400 people, with approximately 10,000 detained.

The concern for Syrians, and indeed the world, is that Assad’s words appear to contrast sharply with the actions of the state.

As he spoke, Syrian forces continued its operation in the north-west of the country, surrounding villages in order to re-impose control over the restive border region.

The Turkish Red Crescent claims as many as 30,000 Syrian refugees have fled into Turkey, with more still stranded in makeshift camps on the Syrian side of the border.

The week-long military crackdown in the north-west, beginning in the village of Jisr al-Shughour, has sparked an international outcry, including an impromptu visit to Turkey’s Syrian refugee camps by Hollywood star Angelina Jolie.

While refugee accounts speak of unbridled brutality on the part of the Syrian army and a pro-regime Alawite militia, the Shabiha, conflicting reports have emerged of armed groups killing scores of soldiers.

The media blackout in Syria has made it nearly impossible to verify accounts of atrocities, and thus the picture of what is really occurring remains blurry.

Following days of clashes in Jisr al-Shughour, Turkish journalists were allowed access to the village, discovering a story that differed from the accounts of refugees who had crossed the border.

Turkey’s Todays Zaman reports of a town that reeked of blood and smoke, with fresh bodies of scores of beheaded soldiers littered throughout. One soldier’s decapitated head was allegedly paraded around the village by armed opposition militias.

US reports of armed opposition groups in Syria’s north-west have also emerged, with a US official confirming to the New York Times the existence of several, unknown, religious-based militias fighting the Syrian regime.

“We see the elements of an armed opposition across Syria. In the north-west, we see it as having taken over. There are a lot of them.”

It remains unclear who these militias are, and from where they are sourcing their weapons. Islamist roots of such groups are likely, given Jisr al-Shughour’s history as a conservative Sunni village that has long opposed the Assad regime.

Indeed, the village was the source of an Islamist insurgency against the regime of Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, in the 1980s.

Both sides appear to be competing for a victim status to justify their own militant actions. The opposition’s inability to reign in armed Islamist groups is providing ammunition to Assad’s rhetoric that an overthrow of his government will lead to chaos.

Assad is particularly stoking the fears of minority Christians, Druze and Alawites – to which his family belongs – of a Sunni Islamist coup driven by revenge and Sharia Law as a means to ensure their support.

In yesterday’s speech, Assad again reinforced the threat of extremist Islamist elements within the country bent on imposing its will upon Syria.

The presence of such armed groups in north-west Syria validates Assad’s warnings, and denies the secular opposition the ability to convince wayward Christians and Alawites to join their struggle.

The Islamist threat is also proving effective in restraining the US from openly declaring the removal of Assad from power. Washington is equally wary of the fragility of Syria’s opposition, and while it is increasing pressure on the regime, it is still maintaining a safe distance to not push Syria into a civil conflict with an Islamist insurgency.

As the US winds down its own operations against Islamist insurgents in neighbouring Iraq, it can ill afford to allow an opening for Al Qaeda and Sunni Islamists in Syria, where Sunnis constitute a majority.

Mounting Western and Turkish pressure on the Syrian regime is more a source of frustration at Assad’s stubborn mismanagement of the crisis, as opposed to any genuine desire to see him overthrown.

Following the traditional path of most autocrats, Assad foolishly believes violence will save his authoritarianism. It appears the Syrian leadership has learnt little from the examples of Mubarak, Ben Ali, and Gaddafi. Ruling over a restive population that considers a dictator’s rule illegitimate is doomed for failure. A violent crackdown may buy Assad some time, but the damage to his own credibility as a viable leader is almost irreparable.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak best summarised this view by predicting Assad would only survive a further six months given that he has lost all credibility.

The violent government crackdown has only heightened sectarian tensions between majority Sunnis and the ruling Alawites. With every Sunni protester killed, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist armed groups recruit a dozen more.

Extreme situations are prime recruiting grounds for extremist movements.

To the frustration of Turkey, Assad’s continued violent path is a self-destructive road that will only lead to the downfall of his regime, and Syria. One crucial omission from Assad’s speech was that his own authoritarianism is the key obstacle to the development of Syria.

Few expect a dictator to place the interests of his nation above that of his personal power, but Assad’s blind pursuit of the latter will not save his regime, and only condemn Syria to an unstable future riddled in sectarianism.

Despite the genuine intentions of several within the opposition camp, including human rights activists and secular intellectuals, its inability to prevent the emergence of armed Islamist groups speaks volumes of its fragility. If the opposition cannot reign in Islamist groups in battle with the regime, there is little chance such groups would be stopped should Assad’s regime fall.

International efforts also cannot be relied upon, with Russia and China determined to stop a Libya repeat passing through the UN Security Council.

All the more reason why Assad must act on his promises. If the Syrian leader is to have a political future in Syria and save his country from civil war, he must implement the reforms he has promised. Assad needs to stomach the difficult pill that the reign of autocracy in the Arab world is ending.

There are, thus, only two options for the Syrian president: lead the change, or be swept up in it.

Democracy’s price may be too high in Syria – further comments

Posted By antounissa on April 15th, 2011

I wrote a piece on Syria’s recent turmoil that was picked up by ABC’s The Drum.

Judging by some of the comments at the end of the piece, it appears my article has been misconstrued by some.

Of course, in an ideal world, we want every nation to be democratic, and every human being to enjoy the same basic rights and opportunities that many in the West take for granted.

But let’s not be naive about this.

Prosperity does not appear overnight. It is not simply a matter of removing a dictatorship today, and installing robust democratic institutions tomorrow.

Democracy is a concept that that bestows sovereignty onto a people, and actively engages citizens in the decisions and interests of the state.

However, for such a concept to work, it must be agreed upon and adhered to by all major stakeholders within a society.

I can make a broad statement and claim that in troubled post-colonial societies democratic uprisings often lead to a bloodbath.

I can particularly make the statement in regards to the Fertile Crescent states, chiefly Lebanon-Syria-Iraq, all of which are multi-ethnic and confessional states. Indeed, all three had boundaries imposed on them by the Allies post-World War I that until today many within their respective countries do not agree with.

My article highlighted such divisions that have deep historic roots, and to get a better insight into the implications of Syria’s recent history on today’s revolt, see Joshua Landis’ analysis.

Iraq and Afghanistan are clear examples of Western naivete when it concerns state building. You cannot just walk in, remove an authoritarian regime, and install a completely new and unique system and expect it to work without a few glitches (or in Afghanistan’s case, complete failure).

At present in the Middle East, there are notable and encouraging differences that I have highlighted in a previous piece on The Drum. Democracy has to come from within, and indeed, the latest push for democracy in the Arab world is coming from within. This must be praised, and I have, and continue to support their democratic aspirations.

But if Iran 1979 also taught us, we need to be cautious. There is no doubt that long-time human rights activists in Syria are increasingly vocal about change, and are risking their lives at the forefront of the protests. However, as illustrated in my article, there are elements within Syria that are able and willing to hijack any attempt for true democratic change, and are prepared to risk internal conflict to achieve it.

We have witnessed this with armed gangs, the arrests of Khaddam’s men, confessions that certain actors are attempting to arm rebels, and unfortunately for well-meaning protesters, there’s always the lingering presence of the Muslim Brotherhood that taints the image.

This is not to excuse the government’s actions, they have been reprehensible, I have been highly critical over the years of the lack of progress to reform Syria. I have always believed Bashar al-Assad has had many opportunities to open Syria up, and he has implemented several economic reforms, but not enough to prevent Syria from potential economic collapse in the near future.

As a Lebanese, and someone that recognises the indestructible bonds (to the resentment of some Lebanese) between Lebanon and Syria, there is nothing I want to see more than Syria to be democratic, prosperous, and economically healthy. A healthy Syria equals a healthy Lebanon, it is in our interest to see Syria progress.

Conversely, nothing will harm Lebanon more than civil conflict in Syria, and whilst we must remain adamant in our push for reform in Syria, we must also be wary of the dangers such a push poses. The coin can flip either way, and that is exactly what my piece set to highlight.

Lebanon crisis a test for the US

Posted By antounissa on January 22nd, 2011

My piece on ABC’s Unleashed:

Lebanon’s national unity government collapsed last week following the resignation of Hezballah and its allies in protest at a controversial UN investigation into former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri’s assassination in 2005.

Deposed Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, son of the slain former premier, and his Western-backed March 14 coalition have refused Hezballah’s demands to end co-operation with the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), which is expected to indict Hezballah members.

The crisis has spurred regional powers into action, aimed at preventing the troubled tiny Arab country from relapsing into civil war.

Regional talks have hit a snag, however, as Saudi Arabia – a key player in Lebanon – announced in frustration its withdrawal from negotiations this week.

Nevertheless, the emergence of new regional players signals a clear decline of US influence in a region where it once held exclusive hegemony.

It is not only the typical arch nemeses of Iran and Syria that are challenging the US in the Middle East, but friendly states in Turkey and Qatar that are becoming increasingly assertive on the regional arena.

The Turkish alternative

Turkey, in particular, has in recent years distanced itself from Washington in its Middle Eastern approach. Gone are the days when Ankara turned a cold shoulder to its east. Turkey is today asserting its own agenda in the region that is visibly independent of American interests.

The Turks – a NATO ally – have refused to take sides in the regional battle for influence between the US and Iran, and instead have pursued friendly relations with Tehran and continue to conduct trade and business with a country under increased US sanctions.

The rise of a Turkish, democratic and Sunni alternative to the US and Iran is proving to be increasingly popular among ordinary Arabs resentful towards American and Israeli regional hegemony, and wary of Iran’s intentions.

Public and vocal condemnations of Israeli policies in Palestine have made Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan among the most popular figures in the Arab world.

Turkey’s drive to the forefront of regional politics has pushed long-time Arab Sunni powers, and key American allies, Saudi Arabia and Egypt out of the spotlight.

Many Lebanese analysts – as well as Hezballah leader Hassan Nasrallah – blamed the US for scuttling months-long Saudi-Syrian efforts to prevent the current crisis from occurring. Washington’s refusal to play ball would have infuriated its Saudi allies after Riyadh reportedly reached an agreement with Damascus and local Lebanese factions.

Obama’s failing Lebanon policy

Entrenched in a regional contest with Iran, the Obama administration has inherited Bush’s legacy of a divided, tense Lebanon.

The neoconservative Bush administration included Lebanon in its plan to transform the region into a New Middle East. Bush sought to expel Syrian and Iranian influence from the country – a feat the US already failed to accomplish in the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War – and destroy Hezballah.

The Israeli onslaught of 2006 failed to achieve the key goal of eradicating Hezballah. To the contrary, Bush’s confrontational policies in Lebanon only empowered Hezballah, with Iran enjoying unprecedented levels of influence in the country.

American scholar and expert on Syria Joshua Landis accurately writes that “President Obama finds himself trapped in a Lebanese civil war that President Bush reignited and that he cannot win”.

Obama’s insistence on the STL in an attempt to strike a blow to Hezballah, Syria and Iran risks backfiring. Hezballah’s local Western-backed opponents do not have the capability to confront the Shi’ite group in a civil war.

The “military and popular” pressure of Hezballah is greater than White House statements, according to key Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who holds the balance of power in determining the next Prime Minister.

Should the Americans continue to squeeze Hezballah, its Iranian and Syrian backers may give their local ally the green light to take control of the state by force.

The US is pursuing an aggressive Lebanon policy that will inevitably lead to conflict, a game the Iranians are willing to play. Tehran is aware it holds the upper hand, and there is little the Americans can do to dislodge Hezballah, which enjoys widespread popular support in addition to its unrivalled military presence in Lebanon.

Internal Lebanese strife raises the stakes of regional conflict as Israel has previously warned it will not allow a Hezballah-ruled Lebanon on its doorstep. Any future war with Hezballah, according to Israeli strategists, is likely to draw in Syria.

Aware of the spiralling effect war in Lebanon may have on the region, emerging regional powers such as Turkey are countering with their own drive and interest for regional stability. The current Lebanon crisis is most certainly a test to see which regional will prevails.

Jumblatt’s defection may prevent civil war, Hezballah to rule Lebanon

Posted By antounissa on January 22nd, 2011

Political kingmaker Walid Jumblatt’s defection to Hezballah effectively ends Western-backed Saad Hariri’s hopes of retaining his post as Lebanon’s Prime Minster.

Jumblatt’s support will give Hezballah and its Christian allies the necessary numbers to form government without the need to compromise with Hariri’s March 14 coalition. It’s a major victory for Syria and Iran over the US in the latest round of Lebanese chess, with a pro-Syrian government set to return to office for the first time since 2005.

Hezballah is leaning to nominate former Prime Minister, and staunch pro-Syrian Sunni figure Omar Karami. Karami’s government was brought down in 2005 amidst mass protests against Syria’s occupation of the country following Rafik al-Hariri’s assassination.

Irony may deliver Karami back into power, with the looming STL prompting Hezballah to flex its political muscles and install a government friendly to the Party of God.

Jumblatt’s decision will sting his former close ally Saad al-Hariri, and no doubt a strong sense of betrayal will be felt in the March 14 camp. The Druze leader is insisting his defection was made as a result of strong Syrian and Hezballah pressure, as if claiming he had no choice in the matter in a bid to appease disillusioned supporters of the once fierce critic of Syria. He may not be lying about this one.

Despite his status as a deceitful warlord, Jumblatt’s decision may in fact stave off the threat of civil war for the time being. Hezballah made its intentions loud and clear when it resigned from government that it was in no way going to tolerate a Beirut leadership that was a threat to its weapons and legitimacy.

If Jumblatt had nominated Hariri as Prime Minister, Hezballah would have most likely swept the country by force, raising the prospect for civil war.

The Americans were gambling that the STL would have, indeed, pushed Hezballah to use its force in Lebanon, potentially drawing Israel into another round with the Iranian ally.

The US and Israel are perhaps also pushing for the fragmentation of Lebanon, as hinted by the Saudi Foreign Minister last week when he stated the country could be partitioned into sectarian cantons ala the Lebanese Forces’ federalism model.

America’s strenuous effort to have the STL – originally a Bush project – imposed on Lebanon and drive the troubled state to conflict appears to have been thwarted by Jumblatt’s decision to award Hezballah official rule of the country. It also ensures the country remains united, as the now Shi’ite-Christian-Druze coalition is set to establish government with strong Syrian support.

Dangers still remain, however, as the Americans and Israelis are unlikely to back down on the quest to eliminate Hezballah. The STL’s indictments are still to be released. Lebanese analysts warn it may take months for Hezballah and its allies to form government. Should the indictments be issued before a government is announced, the STL could still have a divisive impact on Lebanon and raise tensions.

March 14, now to be in opposition, may also resort to Hezballah’s old tactics of turning to the streets and sparking uproar amongst the country’s Sunnis who will no doubt feel marginalised. Such demonstrations will receive maximum American and Saudi support, with widespread media coverage in the West and Saudi-owned Arab media.

But it’s clear that with the major Druze and Christian parties now firmly behind Hezballah, there’s little room to move for Hariri and his few remaining allies. Civil war is now incomprehensible as Hariri now finds himself increasingly isolated against the bulk of the country. In roles reversed five years ago, Hezballah has successfully shifted from being the isolated outcast in Lebanon, to the inclusive ruler with allies in every region and sect of the country.

Hezballah is no longer a state within Lebanon, it is Lebanon.

Opposition walkout throws Lebanon into a state of flux

Posted By antounissa on January 13th, 2011

My latest piece for Australian independent online political media, Crikey, on the Hezballah-led cabinet walkout that has forced the government to dissolve.

Freelance writer Antoun Issa writes:

Lebanon’s Hezballah-led Opposition has resigned en masse from the country’s fragile national unity government, triggering its collapse.

Eleven Opposition ministers, including Hezballah’s Christian allies, walked out from their posts as Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri was meeting with President Barack Obama in Washington. The resignation follows a dispute over a controversial UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) into the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, a Sunni, in 2005.

Rumours in recent months have intensified that the STL is set to indict members from the Shia Hezballah in the assassination. Hezballah leader Hassan Nasrallah has previously vowed not to co-operate with what he calls a politicised tribunal by Israel and the US set to harm Lebanon’s internal stability.

Hezballah and its allies have been vigorously pushing for Saad al-Hariri, son of the slain former Prime Minister, to denounce the STL and refuse participation.

Hariri and his pro-Western bloc, March 14 — inclusive of Sunnis, Christians and Druze — have rejected Hezballah’s demand, and insist on pursuing justice through the STL. Lebanon has been in deadlock for several months, as local protagonists awaited the outcome of intense negotiations between Syria and Saudi Arabia to resolve the crisis.

Syria and Saudi Arabia each hold significant influence in Lebanon, and are widely seen as patron states to the country’s rival political factions. Syria holds sway over Hezballah and its allies, whilst Saudi Arabia remains close to Hariri.

The two states were at odds following the assassination of Saudi-ally Rafik al-Hariri, as the Saudis — backed by the Bush administration — sought to remove Syrian influence from Lebanon. Damascus and Riyadh have recently reconciled in a bid to co-operate over regional flashpoints, particularly Lebanon.

Following the Syrian-Saudi rapprochement, the Saudis’ local Lebanese allies, including Hariri, re-established friendly ties with Syria, after once accusing Damascus of assassinating his father. As rivals in Lebanon began to forgive and forget, many hoped the latest Syrian-Saudi effort to defuse internal tension over the STL would succeed.

The Opposition’s resignation from the government comes a day after Syria and Saudi Arabia failed to broker an agreement.

It remains unclear what led to the breakdown of the Syrian-Saudi negotiations, but some Lebanese analysts are blaming US pressure, which has insisted the STL go ahead, dismissing Hezballah’s complaints.

What now for Lebanon?

It’s not the first time the Hezballah-led opposition bloc has walked out from a national unity government. Indeed, the Shia group resigned from the Siniora government in 2006, paralysing the country for two years until an agreement was reached in Doha, 2008.

Although Hezballah quit cabinet in 2006, it did not trigger the collapse of government as the Opposition did not hold the amount of seats required to bring it down.

Ironically, its key demand in 2006 was that it be given a special veto to do exactly what it is doing now, that is, bringing down the government when it sees fit.

Hezballah and the Opposition now hold the 11 necessary cabinet seats needed to cause a collapse, all of whom have now resigned.

The Opposition’s failure to bring down the government in 2006 led to mass demonstrations and sit-ins by Hezballah and its allies, that subsequently drew counter demonstrations from supporters of Hariri’s March 14 bloc.

Hezballah may again resort to mass demonstrations to further pressure Hariri to drop the STL. Hariri is currently torn between preserving stability in the country, and finding the truth of his father’s murder — with Hezballah and the US tugging in opposite directions.

There is no reason to assume, however, that the government’s collapse will dramatically lead to renewed civil war, as much is contingent on the interests of Syria and Saudi Arabia — neither of which wants to be drawn into another Lebanon conflict.

“The Near East presents no interest to the great powers”

Posted By antounissa on December 31st, 2010

A fascinating article by Percy Kemp – a Lebanese born strategic writer to a British father and Lebanese mother – in Le Monde that, to a degree, reinforces and broadens the realist assertions by Mearsheimer and Walt of Israel as a strategic liability for the US.

Kemp goes further to contend that the entire Near East (Levantine states of Syria, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, Jordan) is a “lost geostrategic hole” with no strategic importance to the great powers, as the earth’s gravity shifts east to Asia.

Read full article here (French), below is an excerpt:

Contrairement à la péninsule Arabique qui le borde au sud et à l’ensemble irako-iranien qui le prolonge à l’est, le Proche-Orient est en effet relativement pauvre en ressources naturelles, peu de flux énergétiques ou migratoires y transitent et, si l’on excepte le canal de Suez, dont l’importance pour le commerce international ne cesse de décroître, aucune artère vitale ne le traverse.

Cette région, qui fut jadis l’objet de toutes les convoitises, est aujourd’hui un grenier à blé vide, un sous-sol plus archéologique que minéralogique et, depuis l’implosion de l’Union soviétique, un vrai trou perdu géostratégique. La Méditerranée orientale ne présente plus aucun intérêt aux yeux des grandes puissances, et sa marginalisation sur l’échiquier mondial devrait se poursuivre au fur et à mesure que le poids de la planète se déplacera vers l’est du continent asiatique.

C’est sans doute pourquoi nos gouvernants font preuve d’un tel manque d’imagination, comme de détermination, dès qu’il s’agit pour eux de trouver puis d’imposer une solution au conflit. Leur quête d’une paix au Proche-Orient s’apparente en réalité plus au luxe qu’à la nécessité. Velléitaire, elle entraîne les improvisations, les tergiversations, les atermoiements et, plus généralement, l’amateurisme diplomatique que l’on sait.

English translation:

Contrary to the Arabian peninsula to the south, and the whole Iraqi-Iranian which extends to the east, the Near East is indeed relatively poor in natural resources, little energy or migration flows through and, if we exclude the Suez canal, whose importance for international commerce continues to decline, no vital artery crosses it.

This region, which in the past was the object of all desire, is today an empty breadbasket, a basement more archaeological than mineralogical et, since the implosion of the Soviet Union, a true lost geostrategic hole. The Eastern Mediterranean no longer presents any interest in the eyes of great powers, and its marginalisation on the global chessboard continues little by little as the weight of the world shifts east to Asia.

This is probably why our leaders are showing such a lack of imagination, as well as determination, when it comes to them to find and impose a solution to the conflict. Their concern for peace in the Near East is more so in reality a desire rather than a necessity. Weak-willed, it involves improvisations, procrastination, and more generally, diplomatic amateurism that we know.

Kemp proposes complete abandonment of the Arab-Israeli conflict, from supplying arms and aid, to imposing sanctions, and allowing the belligerents in the region determine their own fate.

This is easier said than done, and no doubt many strategists in the US would love no more than to dump the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from their foreign policy agenda while more pressing concerns continue to flair in East and Central Asia. But unfortunately for the US, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has important political domestic implications, as a potent pro-Israel lobby continues to vigorously push Israel up the ladder of US foreign policy.

Domestic considerations are often overlooked by realists, and I’m not sure whether Kemp is a fully-fledged realist, but his piece appears to be on similar lines of true realists Mearsheimer and Walt. As such, Kemp addressed the Near East from a geostrategic perspective, and whilst his assertions are sound, it ignores the domestic realities in the US that forbid the superpower from altering its course in the region.

Despite this absence, I agree, the Near East receives far too much international attention than is warranted. American conservatives will argue that Israel is a strategic asset to keep potential Middle Eastern American foes at bay, i.e. Iran. But remove Israel from the American umbrella, and Iran no longer poses a problem to US interests. Conservatives fail to recognise that bias towards Israel is the fundamental source of anti-Americanism in the region, not the US itself or the values it purports to represent.

At present, Israel continues to drain a minimum of US$3bn annually from Washington’s coffers, and that does not include low-interest loans and subsidised American military hardware and technology, while Egypt takes US$2bn annually. The Near East is a drain on the US financially and politically, with little strategic return.

Conversely, the resource-less Levantine states – which the late Hafez al-Assad and Jordan’s King Abdullah I dubbed Greater Syria – have little choice but to pursue a common path in the long-term to remain economically viable and competitive on the global stage, and to share the few resources that lie within the region.

This argument was pushed by Israeli academic Jeff Halper, who contended in a 2009 talk at the Australian National University in Canberra that Israel/Palestine-Syria-Lebanon-Jordan need to have closer ties than those that exist among EU states, and should operate as a single economic unit, as this region has done throughout history.

The tension over water is an ample example of a scarce resource being fought over, rather than shared in the Near East. Water was a key issue that prevented an Israeli-Syrian agreement in 2000, and remains a thorny issue in relations with all four states in the region. Syria, Israel and Jordan each survive off the same water resource, while Lebanon’s water streams are tributary to the common water basins in the Galilee and Jordan River. In other words, they all connect to the same water system. Rather than competing over a depleting resource, the four states would do better to formulate a common strategy that enables fair and equal access to water.

This is but one example of where co-operation is the only option among the four states. Preventing such co-operation is the fanciful ideals of a Jewish-only oasis in an Arabian desert, or a Muslim Palestine, all of which are unrealistic illusions that are hijacking the conflict and, indeed, the destiny of the Near East. Fuelling such illusions is the US and international community with its continued support of a status-quo system, driven by an obsequious need to win approval of the pro-Israel lobby and the Jewish vote.

As Kemp rightly states, it’s time to cut the cord, and allow the Near East realise its true destiny… on its own.

Shuffling and reshuffling – conceding Lebanon to Iran

Posted By antounissa on October 16th, 2010

Interesting comments by several Lebanese academics were quoted in this article by The Age’s Middle East correspondent, Jason Koutsoukis, more or less surrendering Lebanon to Iran in the latest round of regional chess:

“It’s not just the Israelis who are hysterical about Iran,” says Hilal Khashan, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut.

Saudi Arabia and Egypt – countries that have meddled in Lebanese politics for so long – have given up here. It’s Iraq they are trying to save from Iranian influence. They believe Lebanon is already lost.

Whatever else Mr Ahmadinejad was hoping to achieve with this week’s visit to Lebanon – including an array of economic, trade and cultural agreements – he provided tangible proof that Iran is in virtual control of Lebanon’s southern border, heightening security concerns within Israel and embarrassing the United States, which put significant pressure on Lebanese President Michel Suleiman to cancel the visit.

Many believe Lebanon, which emerged from 15 years of war in 1990, is once again headed towards internal rupture.

A United Nations Special Tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri is soon to deliver findings that seem certain to implicate Hezbollah.

“Hezbollah will not tolerate it, because they cannot live with such an accusation,” says Professor Khashan. “So the current Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, has a choice.

”He can denounce the tribunal’s findings, or he can leave the government. But he can’t support a finding that Hezbollah were involved in his father’s murder. He does not have anything like the power to do so. His time in politics has, in my view, already expired.

It was clear when Obama took office, and withdrew from Bush’s neocon drive to reshape the Middle East, that Lebanon would be surrendered to Syria and Iran.

As soon as the US changed course, Saudi Arabia threw in the towel, King Abdullah kissed and made up with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, and ordered Hariri to do the same. The wayward Jumblatt rescinded on insults made towards Syria and Hezballah during the Bush years, and won forgiveness in turn.

To demonstrate the helplessness of Hariri at present, the Future Movement leader will most likely not dare to confront Hezballah over the possibility that the Shia movement was involved in the murder of his father.

Civil war is highly unlikely, simply because it’s impossible for any other faction to stand up to Hezballah. If Ahmedinejad’s visit signified anything, it was a clear warning to Hezballah’s Lebanese opponents that Iran is the guarantor of its ascendancy in the country, and any challenge to it will be quashed.

Ironically, the Saudis and the Hariri camp are turning to Syria to calm the situation. This is how Syria plays its cards in Lebanon, and it plays it well. Syria will always seek to ensure it is the major player in Lebanon, and thus shares an interest with Saudi Arabia and the US to not allow Iran to become overly dominant in the country.

History shows that Syria has sought to contain Iran in Lebanon once before, when it backed the Lebanese Shia Amal movement against Hezballah in the 1980s.

Of course times have changed. Hezballah is a crucial part of Syria’s military defence strategy vis-a-vis Israel, and will not abandon it. It will also not abandon its alliance with Iran, as Assad has reiterated in recent times. But as has been Syrian policy in Lebanon since the French separated the multi-confessional state from Damascus, the Syrians will seek to maintain some level of balance between the various factions in the country.

This effectively works as a guarantee for Lebanon’s non-Shi’ite communities against an ever-powerful Hezballah. The only thing Syria will ask in return is that Hariri abandon the UN’s Special Lebanon Tribunal. With strong Saudi backing, Hariri will have little choice but to accept this deal.

The irony that March 14 would find itself turning to Bashar al-Assad to contain Iran’s influence and Hezballah’s rise.

Simply another round of Lebanese chess.